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Honey I Shrunk the Plot! Learning to Love Synopses

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The dreaded synopsis. Let’s be honest, we’ve all complained about writing it. And why not, when compressing a 100k-word novel into three short paragraphs can feel harder than a quantum physics exam?

When I wrote my first book, I nearly cried when it came to writing the synopsis. It felt awful, trying to get every ounce of my plot into a snack-sized page–at least until I spoke with another author in passing about synopses. She spoke about them with so much love, and said they were one of her favorite things to write. In fact, she said writing the synopsis was the first thing she did, even before laying down the details of her plot.

Her offhanded comment hit me in the gut. There was a way to love a synopsis and effectively plot my book? It sounded like a wonderful idea. But how?

Stage 1: A Lukewarm Start

If I was to conquer this thing, I had to make sure to know my enemy. Every synopsis should be in the present tense regardless of the style of the novel itself, single-spaced, and no longer than a page (bonus points if you can get it down to half a page).

Every novel can be broken into a three-act play: the opening introduction, the peak of the conflict, and finally the resolution. One paragraph at a time, focusing on one of those aspects of the novel, the writer can form the narrative arc of the book as a whole, making sure to focus on the most important aspects of the plot.

The synopsis isn’t the place for cliffhangers. The synopsis is the place where you let it all hang out, so to speak–where you let the reader, who happens to be an agent and/or a potential publisher, know all the juicy tidbits but in their most basic form.

Likewise, make sure to leave the superfluous words for the novel. Edit and trim the synopsis to keep everything simple and clear.

By focusing on that basic formula, the synopsis itself was demystified, making it a little easier for me to write the second time around. But I still didn’t enjoy the process. While it felt more palatable, it was still tantamount to eating soggy cauliflower.

It wasn’t until I started to plan for my next pitch that I found how truly useful the synopsis can be.

Stage 2: A New Approach

I had an idea for a new book, which sounded great to me. I had the beginning and ending all planned out, but that sticky middle threw me for a loop. And then I remembered the advice I’d received so long ago: Start with the synopsis.

So I set my plot aside and took to the dreaded synopsis for help. Writing those basic paragraphs helped me to figure out the meaty bits of the story, which in turn helped me to go back and create a proper outline. And in turn, to finish my pitch.

While we fuss over soggy vegetables, we may forget that we can cook them in a different way–and like them much better for the change. The same can be said for the dreaded synopsis.

When we put all the tools on the table, we can find an easier way to organize our creative points. In a lot of ways, it’s like sitting down and reading the instructions for a piece of furniture before we assemble it.  You may be thinking, I don’t need to read the directions, but deep down, you know you do.

I can’t quite say that I love writing a synopsis yet, but when I began to utilize it as a tool from the very beginning, it made the process of writing a novel move much more smoothly. Perhaps that is the first step in my relationship with writing the synopsis. The love can come later.

How do you feel about the synopsis? Love it, hate it? Does it come easily to you or do you struggle? How do you approach it? Share any tips or strategies in comments. 

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